Simplified: Neighbors are mad. Lincoln County officials feel their hands are tied, and the state isn't answering questions from multiple news outlets (including this one). It’s all tied to a decision announced last week that a new state penitentiary will be built south of Harrisburg. Here's what we know.
Why it matters
- The need for a new penitentiary is well-documented. The current facility was built in 1881, is overcrowded, and its outdated layout creates an unsafe environment for both inmates and officers, according to South Dakota Searchlight.
- The state earlier this year posted a request for information on land for the new penitentiary, which specified a desire to keep the facility within 20 miles of Sioux Falls. The state announced Friday that the Department of Corrections has agreed to purchase 320 acres of land in rural Lincoln County nearly exactly 20 miles from the current state penitentiary north of downtown Sioux Falls.
- Neighbors told county officials they’re upset – citing concerns about safety, property values and other local impacts, but the county says it can’t tell the state what to do.
"I think the decision is done," Lincoln County Commissioner Michael Poppens said. "Now it's in (the state's) hands to do everything possible to make it as minimal of a negative impact to the people who live close to it as possible."
Tell me more
The site of the future men's prison is located west of the intersection of 477th Avenue and 278th Street, about six miles south of Harrisburg and nearly exactly 20 miles south of the current penitentiary.
- Lawmakers earlier this year approved more than $300 million to buy land, design and build a new facility.
What are people saying about this?
Sen. Jim Bolin, who represents District 16, which includes the new prison site, said it was no secret the state was looking at Lincoln County as a possibility.
"No matter what location was selected, it would generate much controversy," Bolin said. "The people who live near the proposed site will face a huge change in their surroundings. That must be acknowledged."
Rep. Karla Lems, who also represents District 16, said she and many others felt caught "flat-footed" about the decision. She'd like to see the state do a better job of communicating why this site was chosen over other options.
- Lems is also encouraging neighbors to get organized, call public officials and urge the state to slow down the process.
"Do not lose hope," she said. "Until there's nothing else we can do, we're gonna do something."
Half a dozen people came to Tuesday's County Commission to express concerns about the prison. Their comments ranged from concern about infrastructure to fears for the safety of their children playing outside within a mile of the new prison.
- Many of them also said they wish they'd had more notice that this was happening – a comment echoed by the commissioners themselves.
"We are very concerned about what this would look like for our future, for our children's future, for the City of Harrisburg ... I think it would be a very unwise choice for the penitentiary (to be located there)," said resident Lauren Vander Veen.
Lincoln County Commissioner Joel Arends said he's trying to take an optimistic approach about the future.
"People are going to want to live (in Harrisburg) regardless of whether there's a prison four miles away or not because it's a great community," he said.
What happens next?
The state already owns the land where the prison will be constructed, and because it is state land, Arends said the state won’t have to abide by regular county planning and zoning processes (i.e. public hearings for permitting, etc.).
- That said, he still intends to hear out his constituents who have concerns and do what he can to track them.
"What we need to communicate to folks right now is, we understand your concerns," Arends said. "But we're not going to be able to address them all right now."